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The Best Horror Festivals in the World 2021

Fantasporto: Oporto International Film Festival

Porto, Portugal / 2021 / facebook.com/fantasporto

At this 40-year old Portuguese horror hub, “founding director Mario Dorminsky takes a lot of risks premiering a diverse slate of cutting-edge indie films,” says a panelist. “Some prove to be masterpieces, others crap—but this approach is essential for discovering gems that otherwise wouldn’t be given a chance by more commercial, risk-averse festivals.”

This year, Fantasporto’s award for Best Film went to Ghost Master, director Paul Young’s horror-comedy about an embittered assistant director whose script supernaturally possesses the star of his latest low-budget movie.

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Weston Terray’s directorial debut Precarious won the Critics Award at Fantasporto 2020. Courtesy of Fantasporto

Last February, Fantasporto paid tribute to its groundbreaking early history with a repertory screening of Blade Runner, which had its Portuguese premiere at the third annual fest in 1983. The fest’s 2020 edition came to a close just weeks before the onset of the pandemic, leaving it poised to return with minimal setbacks next year. Its upcoming 2021 event is now taking submissions and horror filmmakers can e-mail their latest projects free.

Fantastic Fest

Austin, TX / September 24-30, 2021 / fantasticfest.com

It might seem as if everything to say about Fantastic Fest has already been said. But everyone who’s been to this Austin-based extravaganza has their own story, and no two are the same.

For one panelist, Fantastic Fest is “the place that facilitated the sale of my first feature treatment. When I was just 25, I met the wonderfully supportive Guillermo del Toro and Fantastic Market supervisor Rodney Perkins, who chose my film out of two options and worked with me on my presentation.”

Another panelist enjoyed “a crazy, drunken ‘Scripts Gone Wild’ reading I did onstage last year with many female horror filmmaker friends,” and got a special kick out of meeting Keanu Reeves, who “was as cool as you think he is.”

Of course, attendees’ stories do have some common themes. No one fails to mention what one panelist describes as its “combination of top-caliber programming with a nonstop party environment that isn’t for those with weak-wills or tired livers.” Another panelist highlights its “feverous fan base and outrageous sidebar programs.”

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“A Drag Horror Affair” party at Fantastic Fest 2019. Photograph by Jack Plunkett

At recent editions, Hereditary and Midsommar director Ari Aster was the captain of a Fantastic Feud trivia team, and Parasite director Bong Joon Ho was the guest of honor at the unveiling of an Alamo Drafthouse theater that was renamed the Bong Joon Ho Theater. 

“We pride ourselves on being a down-to-Earth festival where celebrities and fans can mingle casually at events and parties without red tape between them,” says associate head of programming Logan Ann Taylor. Although Fantastic Fest’s 2020 virtual version was decidedly more low-key, fest-goers are hopeful that they’ll be seeing new and old faces at the fest’s on-site bar, The Highball, late next year. 

FilmQuest

Provo, UT / April 2021 & October 2021 / filmquestfest.com

“Run by director Jonathan Martin, the seven-year-old FilmQuest has quickly became one of the most important genre fests on the U.S. circuit,” says a panelist, who applauds the Utahn event’s strong slate of world and regional premieres.

In 2020, FilmQuest programmed the regional premieres of 12 Hour Shift and Survival Skills and the world premiere of They Live Inside Us, the buzzed-about feature debut from director and Utah native Michael Ballif. (Audiences will see them at a later date after this year’s physical festival was postponed.)

Over time, Martin says that FilmQuest’s team discovered that “panels aren’t everyone’s favorite, as enjoyable as they are. People like workshops and labs more: They present more opportunities to learn and improve one’s craft.” Last year, the fest hosted labs on almost every stage of a film’s life cycle, from indie financing and sales, to screenwriting, to marketing. 

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FilmQuest winners Zack Ogle and Aaron Pagniano of We Got a Monkey’s Paw and Chynna Walker, Maverick Moore, and Ryan McNamara of My Dinner with Werner pose in victory on the FilmQuest red carpet. Courtesy of FilmQuest

FilmQuest gives out 48 awards to the winners of its wide-ranging competition categories—22 of whom receive its lovingly crafted Chthulu Trophy. Market activity at the fest is also consistently strong, with Martin noting: “We have a track record of 100% pickup for distribution  for all features we’ve ever taken.” 

The karaoke afterparty is always a favorite among new and returning fest-goers, but last year also added a Friday the 13th-themed party and a hatchet throwing event to the mix. Aside from resuming all that fun in 2021, FilmQuest has some other ambitious goals—including plans to found a new film society and build a new arthouse cinema with the support of local community organizations.

Final Girls Berlin

Berlin, Germany / February 4-7, 2021 / finalgirlsberlin.com 

“This small fest has a huge, bloody, beating heart and is run by radical feminist super horror fans!,” one panelist exclaims. 

For five years and counting, Final Girls Berlin has showcased standout horror shorts and features written, directed, and produced by women, thanks to robust state support from the Senate of Berlin. 

The 2020 edition of FGB received more government funding than any previous year. “That allowed us to pay for the flights and accommodation of our horror specialists so we could expand our program,” says co-director Elinor Lewy. 

This expansion project included investments in marketing to increase local and international press coverage; the rental of a separate space for panels and workshops; an increased presence of women vendors and artists who sold their work during the fest; a trio of dancers who performed a cult-inspired piece before the Berlin premiere of Charlie Says; and a well-received horror trivia event.

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Final Girls Berlin attendees at the 2019 festival’s horror-themed self-defense class. Courtesy of Final Girls Berlin

FGB 2020 audiences were treated to gems new and old, from the German premiere of The Deeper You Dig and the Berlin premiere of Swallow, to repertory screenings of I Was a Teenage Serial Killer and Slumber Party Massacre

Recent workshops included talks on the “Bad Mother” trope in Mexican horror and “The Changing Face of the Female Monster,” and even a horror-themed self-defense class. 

Horrible Imaginings Film Festival

Santa Ana, CA / September 3-5, 2021 / hifilmfest.com

Emerging independents, take note: “Horrible Imaginings is the kind of festival you want to experience early in your career,” says a panelist. “That’s because director Miguel Rodriguez treats his festival community like a family—with the utmost care and love.”

Under normal conditions, HIFF hosts its weekend-long stint at The Frida Cinema in Santa Ana. The fest’s response to COVID-19 was a 2020 online edition that Rodriguez says “expanded from three to seven days, with the price reduced and several periphery events added for our pass holders.” 

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Horrible Imaginings’ Future Fears Young Filmmakers block. Photograph by Urbanite LA

Virtual attendees enjoyed the U.S. premiere of Steve Villeneuve’s Evil Dead fandom doc, Hail to the Deadites, and the California premiere of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, director Derek Carl’s remake of the 1962 cult classic of the same name. HIFF is also the home of “Campfire Tales,” a quarterly showcase of standout horror shorts both foreign and domestic. 

One panelist adds: “Part of this super-cool horror fest’s mission is to bring you the best, most diverse films from around the globe, and it is the most diverse I’ve ever attended. The socio-political shorts blocks my films have played in there are very well attended by both filmmakers and audiences, and the conversations resulting from these films are quite gratifying”. Certainly deserving, then, of a spot as one of the best horror festivals around.

Written by Max Weinstein

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